- Jell-O became a beloved household staple in the U.S. by printing its own recipes and advertisements.
- It’s beloved in a part of the U.S. known as “the Jell-O Belt”, and even became Utah’s official state food in 2001.
- Jell-O generated $US932.5 million in sales in 2009.
- However, its sales have fallen year after year as eating trends like natural foods and veganism continue to gain popularity with consumers.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcription of the video.
Narrator: Jell-O has starred in some of the 1950s most infamous recipes.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson: It was being served at tea parties and card parties.
Narrator: It’s beloved in what’s known as the “Jell-O belt”… and continues to be slurped down by college students across the country. But despite its brand recognition sales have been slipping for decades, dropping more than $US371 million between 2009 and 2018. So, what happened? Before the pre-packaged boxes and colourful juggling cups we’ve come to recognise as Jell-O, gelatin was served in the Middle Ages. Gelatin is made of collagen and early recipes involved melting and filtering pigs’ ears and feet. It eventually became a status symbol because you needed to have access to a lot of meat, to have enough bones to boil. You also needed a large staff to do it and some were cool to store the gelatin so it could set properly. The jiggling dish was served to European royalty and it eventually made its way across the Atlantic to the United States. Soon people were looking for an easier and faster way to make gelatin, but early attempts just didn’t taste that great. However one instant gelatin product, would quickly become a staple in American households. [Tape] J-E-L-L-O!
Narrator: Invented in the tiny town of Le Roy, New York by struggling cough syrup maker, Pearle Wait and his wife, May. Jell-O combined gelatin with sugary fruit syrups, which made it sweeter than other instant gelatin products. But the small town couple didn’t know how to market Jell-O. So in 1899 they sold the patent for $US450, the equivalent of almost $US14,000 today to orator Frank Woodward of the Genesee Pure Food Company. Just three years later, Jell-O sales rose to $US250,000 or $US7.4 million today. Jell-O found its success in a series of highly strategic and successful advertising campaigns. It printed its own recipes showing and teaching consumers all the different ways they could serve Jell-O in a meal, which generated demand for the product. The company commissioned cookbooks and advertisements from American artist Norman Rockwell, who created colourful drawings of Jell-O in family friendly settings. This helped to establish the company’s wholesome reputation. In 1923, the Genesee Pure Food Company changed its name to the Jell-O Company. Two years later, The Jell-O Company became part of a larger food empire, which would eventually become General Foods Corporation. When the great depression hit, recipe books promoted Jell-O as an affordable food option, highlighting its ability to preserve foods and transform just a few ingredients into a satisfying meal. And during World War II, Jell-O salads became a creative way to put meals together with rationed goods. Convenience also began to play a bigger role in the meals people prepared.
Johnson: In World War II when you had many more women mobilized in the workforce and people were looking for something easy, it was probably much easier to just make some Jell-O and stick it in the fridge for the next day than to try and bake a cake or make a pie when fat was rationed.
Narrator: And in the post war era, elaborate Jell-O salads became a popular choice for home events like dinner parties.
Johnson: These were sort of public events in a private space. So it was important that you impressed your guests.
Narrator: But the qualities that once made Jell-O a staple in American homes started to backfire. While Jell-O’s low price point made it accessible during hard times like the great depression, it’s cheapness also degraded gelatin’s once glamorous reputation, not to mention Jell-O’s association with wartime rations made it less than appealing to consumers who no longer had to stretch out ingredients. So by the 50s, gelatin was seen as something to stick leftovers in or serve to kids, and by the 70s, Jell-O sales began to decline. In response to its slipping sales, Jell-O hired comedian and actor Bill Cosby as a spokesperson in 1974. The partnership is one of the longest celebrity endorsements in American advertising history, lasting 29 years. At the time, Cosby’s endorsement helped boost sales but Jell-O took a hit as it ramped up production of its pre-packaged single serve cups. It was seen as a snack food for children, something served in a school cafeteria or in a hospital– not a filling meal for a family. Tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris bought General Foods in 1985, and in 1989 merged it with Kraft Inc., creating Kraft General Foods. When the low fat diet trend emerged in the 80s and 90s, Kraft tried to market Jell-O as a diet food with fat-free flavours to keep up.
Anna Miller: So in the 80s there were all of these products where manufacturers were trying to take away the fat and then add a bunch of preservatives and other ingredients and sugars to make the food still palatable without fat.
Narrator: But for Jell-O, doing this wasn’t enough to turn things around. Instead, it now had the added reputation of being a diet food which only increased in the early 2000s as Jell-O pivoted to promoting it’s sugar free products to take advantage of the Atkins diet craze. When that didn’t help bounce sales back, Jell-O attempted to play up its family friendly reputation and although consumers had embraced Jell-O during the great depression as a way to cut costs, the great recession didn’t seem to have the same effect. From 2009 to 2014, Jell-O sales declined by double digits, falling from $US932.5 million to 692 million.
Miller: So Jell-O is basically the opposite of what consumers are looking for right now. It looks artificial, its ingredients are unrecognizable, it has a bunch of added sugar and even though it’s fat-free, we all know now that that is not necessarily healthier.
Narrator: So is this the end?
Miller: If Jell-O wanted to make a comeback, I think it’s pretty impossible if their aim is to appeal to those looking for more natural foods. It would have to basically turn into something other than Jell-O.
Narrator: But despite its falling sales numbers, Jell-O remains popular in places like Salt Lake City and the surrounding area, otherwise known as the Jell-O belt. The area has a large Mormon population, and Jell-O’s wholesome family branding aligns with Mormon values. Jell-O even became the official snack food of Utah in 2001 and the trading pin for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics was a bowl of green Jell-O. And Kraft foods still believes in the brand. Kraft sent Business Insider this statement saying, The company also encourages people to get creative with Jell-O recipes on social media, which feels like a return to Jell-O’s origins when the company would print recipes to teach confused housewives what to do with the strange new product. It’s also trying to connect with new generations by selling edible Jell-O slime for kids. So while Jell-O may no longer be the star of as many meals as it used to be, it’s still alive and jiggling.
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